Baseball is back. All 30 MLB teams are fully entrenched in spring training in Florida and Arizona, and members of every organization are representing their home countries in the World Baseball Classic all over the globe. With only a few weeks left until Opening Day, the 2017 season is beginning to take shape. As we count down the days, we take a look at five National League storylines to watch this spring.
Cubs World Series Hangover?
They did it. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Now what?
As the Cubs turn their attention to 2017, a successful title defense is a distinct possibility. After all, the Cubs are the consensus favorite to win both the NL pennant and the World Series for a second straight season (though some data-driven projections systems, such as Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA, think the Dodgers will win more games). There is even talk of a budding dynasty among fans and analysts, and for good reason given the youth and talent on the roster.
However, there also is reason to be skeptical. First of all, no franchise has won back-to-back world championships since the Yankees in 1999-2000. Last season’s reigning champs, the Kansas City Royals, slumped to 81-81 with largely the same roster. In fact, the Royals were the fourth consecutive team to miss the playoffs altogether in the season after winning it all.
Winning one title is hard enough. Winning two is much more difficult.
Secondly, roster turnover can have just as big of an impact off the field as on it, and we don’t yet know what the impact of losing David Ross and Dexter Fowler will be. Ross was best known for his role as a clubhouse leader and the personal catcher for Jon Lester, both of which are underrated jobs by most standards. Fowler patrolled center and hit leadoff – two of the biggest jobs on the field.
There are other concerns as well. Can Kyle Schwarber stay healthy? Will Jason Heyward bounce back? Is Albert Almora the answer in center? Can Wade Davis adequately replace Aroldis Chapman as closer? Will Kyle Hendricks continue to pitch like Greg Maddux? There are obviously plenty of reasons to expect the Cubs to excel, but they aren’t immune to suffering from some sort of World Series hangover.
Pressure Rising in DC
No professional baseball team from the nation’s capital has won a postseason series since the Washington Senators in 1924. The Montreal Expos never won a playoff series before the franchise moved to Washington, and the Nationals are now 0-3 all-time in the NLDS after last season’s loss to the Dodgers in five games. That’s a lot of history for the Nats to overcome and the pressure to not only win a series, but to win the Series, is growing.
Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer are both on the payroll through at least 2021, so the pitching should be in good hands for a few more years, health permitting. Scherzer has been both dominant and dependable, but he fractured a knuckle over the offseason and will be 33 later this year. Injury is always a concern with Strasburg.
But more concerning is that the core of the lineup isn’t likely to stay together for much longer – which means there’s pressure to win a World Series in either 2017 or ‘18. After that, the window of opportunity may close.
Bryce Harper has two seasons left on his rookie deal, and will likely become a free agency after the 2018 season. Daniel Murphy also has just two years left on his contract and Anthony Rendon is scheduled to hit free agency before 2020. Jayson Werth’s current deal ends after 2017 and new catcher Matt Wieters signed a one-year deal with an option for ‘18.
And while the NL East is winnable, the division is getting tougher by the day. The Mets are already a contender, and their pitching staff is likely to keep them in in the postseason race through at least 2019. The Braves have built one of baseball’s deepest farm systems, and many of those prospects will be in Atlanta in a year or two. Also, the Phillies’ rebuild is ahead of schedule.
Oh, and the Nationals will probably have to go through the Cubs just to make it to the Fall Classic.
Giants’ Bullpen Makeover
After setting a franchise record for blown saves last season and seeing the bullpen falter in the playoffs, San Francisco signed former Pittsburgh/Washington closer Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62 million deal over the winter. Melancon, who posted a 1.82 ERA with 17 saves in 30 appearances with the Nationals following a trade deadline deal with the Pirates, is the new headliner of a Giants bullpen that will look quite different than the one that struggled mightily in 2016.
Santiago Casilla saved 123 games in seven years with the Giants, but the 35-year-old moved back across the bay to Oakland where his career began in 2004. Sergio Romo, who closed 84 games in nine seasons in San Francisco, plus three in the 2012 World Series, is now a Dodger. Left-handed specialist Javier Lopez retired. All three were key members of the San Francisco bullpen during the run of three world championships in six seasons – and now all are gone.
Melancon will handle the ninth inning and Derek Law, Hunter Strickland, Will Smith and George Kontos are likely to do most of the heavy lifting in the middle innings. In the end, it doesn’t matter who is coming out of the pen for Bruce Bochy, as long as they can ge the job done.
Mets’ Starters Must Stay Healthy
The Mets have arguably the most talented starting rotation in the National League. It’s also a deep group, which is a necessity because these pitchers haven’t always been healthy.
Noah Syndergaard has been outstanding in his first two seasons, and the 24-year-old is coming off a 14-9 performance in which he posted a 2.60 ERA and 218 strikeouts in 31 games (30 starts). The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Syndergaard looks like he’ll be a horse for years to come, a la Max Scherzer, but it’s too early to tell for sure.
Everyone else in the club’s ideal five-man rotation has already proven capable of breaking down. Both Matt Harvey (who missed all of 2014) and Jacob deGrom saw their 2016 seasons end prematurely due to injuries that required surgery. Steven Matz also had an operation and Zack Wheeler hasn’t pitched since 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Fortunately, Robert Gsellman (4-2, 2.42 ERA in 44 2/3 innings) and Seth Lugo (5-2, 2.67 ERA in 64 innings) were outstanding when called upon last year. But, as we mentioned earlier, the Nationals are racing the clock to win a World Series and the NL East is getting tougher. With an aging core of position players (including the oft-injured David Wright, who is likely to begin the season on the DL), the pressure is firmly upon the pitching staff to carry the Mets to the postseason once again.
Each of the four teams listed above is a bona fide World Series contender, who along with the Dodgers, should dominate the postseason conversation most of the year. But, there are several other clubs that believe they are capable of contending in 2017. Count the Colorado Rockies among them.
There are several reasons to be optimistic about the Rockies. Colorado was 75-87 last season, though their Pythagorean Won-Loss projection (80-82) suggests they were somewhat unlucky. Also, the offense is loaded.
Third baseman Nolan Arenado has hit a combined 83 home runs with 263 RBIs over the past two seasons, leading the NL in both categories in 2015 and ’16. Carlos Gonzalez hit 40 home runs in 2015 and drove in 100 runs last year, D.J. LeMahieu won the batting title with a .348 average with Clarlie Blackmon (.324) not far behind, and rookie shortstop Trevor Story launched 27 home runs in 97 games. The Rockies also added free agent Ian Desmond to the mix, and expect the former Nationals infielder and Texas Rangers outfielder to play first base.
Of course, offense has never been the issue in Colorado. The Rockies posted a 4.91 ERA as a staff last season, which tied for 14th in the NL. They were slightly better in FIP (4.38, 12th), but still allowed the second-most runs in the league (860) while striking out the third-fewest hitters (1,223 – just one more than San Diego).
Though Jon Gray has the potential to be a star at the top of the rotation (he struck out 185 hitters in 168 innings with a 3.60 FIP last season) the 24-year-old former No. 3 overall draft pick has a 4.79 ERA in 38 career starts. Tyler Chatwood (12-9, 3.87 ERA, 158 innings) and Tyler Anderson (5-6, 2.54 ERA, 114 1/3 innings) showed promise, but were the only starters to record an ERA below 4.00. Chad Bettis is the de facto No. 1 starter, and he has a 5.01 career ERA in four big league seasons.
The bullpen has talent, but closer Greg Holland missed the entire 2016 season due to injury. Also, the pitching staff will be working with a catching combination of Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy that has played a combined 103 major league games.
The Rockies should be a better team in 2017, but the pitching staff – as usual – will be the determining factor in whether or not the team posts its first winning record since ‘10.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(World Series Game 7 photo courtesy of Chicago Cubs' Facebook page)